I Don't Know How To Feel: Why it Happens

While emotions are usually automatic responses to external factors, this isn't always the case. Sometimes, we just don't know how to feel. Here's why.
I Don't Know How To Feel: Why it Happens

Last update: 23 January, 2021

Most of us find it hard to deal with our emotions. Whilst some people find it difficult to express what they feel, others find controlling their emotions and not overreacting really, really difficult. However, other people face an even more confusing dilemma, as they just “don’t know how to feel”. Does this sound familiar to you? If so, you should know that you haven’t gone crazy and you’re not alone.

But why does it happen? For many people, the fact that some people just don’t know how to feel may seem unthinkable. At the end of the day, emotions are automatic, right? However, those who have experienced it know what we’re talking about.

It’s confusing to feel impotence, wanting to react but not knowing in which direction to go, because emotions don’t just turn up; you have to choose them. But you should know that, like most things, this is a result of dysfunctional learning and we can, and should, change it.

A woman looking worried who doesn't know how to feel.

I don’t know how to feel: why this happens

You might come across this strange feeling in many different situations in everyday life. For example, when you get your grades for your last test and you don’t know if you should be happy you passed or frustrated you didn’t do better. You’ll often turn to your environment for clues on how to feel. Are people congratulating you? Maybe it doesn’t look like a huge deal to others? Did others get better or worse grades?

It can also happen during an argument when somebody treats you badly or says something offensive. You know it’s not right, and yet, you don’t know if you should be sad or angry. You don’t know if you want to get away from that person or try to have a conversation to smooth things over.

How can you be so lost over your own feelings? When somebody experiences this situation frequently, it’s clear they’re disconnected from themselves. It’s not that they don’t know what they feel; it’s that their right to feel has been taken away from them. When they were growing up, when something happened, their parents never asked how they felt, but rather, their reactions were based on the people around them.

Ambivalent attachment

If you don’t know how to feel, it’s probably because you learned to disconnect yourself from your own feelings to attend to other people’s. This happens when a relationship of ambivalent attachment is established between parent and child.

Ambivalent attachment takes place when the parents’ emotional patterns are unpredictable. While sometimes they’re attuned to their child’s needs, other times, they seem passive, indifferent, or even annoyed. As a consequence, the child grows up in an unpredictable affective environment which they have no control over.

Besides, ambivalence makes children pay excessive attention to others. As children become adults, this behavior may manifest itself as the person’s need to fulfill others’ expectations of them. “What will others think if I’m angry or sad?” “Which option will lead to their approval?”

Insecure people with low self-esteem often fall prey to this kind of behavior. People-pleasing, trying to fit in, or projecting the right image are some of the subconscious behaviors that can end up weighing them down.

A sad man looking down.

What can you do if you don’t know how to feel?

First of all, don’t blame yourself. Disconnecting from your own emotions and turning to the external world is something you needed to do a long time ago in order to survive. However, today, you’re a fully functional adult, and that’s why you need to prioritize yourself so that you’re no longer scared of being rejected or judged by others. If you don’t know how to feel, it’s because you’ve never allowed yourself to feel freely. Now’s the time to learn.

A good place to start is to be aware of your values and principles. What’s essential to you? What are your standards when it comes to yourself and others? Questions like these will help you figure out how you feel and how you want to react when someone violates your values and principles.

It’s also important to leave aside your fears: the fear of what others will think of you, but also the fear of losing others. People around us tend to react better to sadness than to anger, so you may end up seeming sad and submissive, when what you feel deep down is anger. However, other times, you may act angry without actually feeling anger because you think it’ll make you look stronger and more confident.

Forget about the outside world and start listening to the way you really feel. You’ll probably find it hard at first, but you’ll eventually be able to connect with yourself. Remember that you have the right to feel!

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  • Casullo, M. M., & Liporace, M. F. (2005). Evaluación de los estilos de apego en adultos. Anuario de investigaciones12, 183-192.
  • Valencia Pérez, X. (2016). El manejo de la impresión y la necesidad de aprobación social como moderadores entre la personalidad y la salud mental (Master’s thesis, Universidad Iberoamericana Ciudad de México. Departamento de Psicología).